How to Dine Alone (in Forty Steps)

1. Ignore the protestations from the back of your brain and push the door. Tell it now isn’t the time. Tell yourself that this is what you wanted anyway.

2. Cast a final casual glance across the burger bar and freeze inside. Realise that the tables you thought were so empty from across the street look an awful lot full. Realise that though the ordering queue is clear there is a collection queue ten deep.

3. Realise that the girl at the counter is looking at you expectantly and smiling.

4. Briefly, momentarily, allow the idea of leaving and trying the Scottish-named burger bar across the road to flick across your mind. Stamp it out. Know that leaving now means breaking this eye contact and the associated social protocol and it’s much much too late to do that without becoming a story they tell in the breakroom about their oddest customers.

( 4A. Know actually that they wouldn’t do that and she’d not even bat an eye but also know that you’d carry around the idea that they would and she would for the rest of your life and sometimes it will bubble up out of nowhere and choke you.)

5. Place your order. Note that the girl is Eastern European and keen and clearly new. Repeat your order a couple of times and decide to try the cajun fries because you only live once. Smile inwardly that she carefully explains the ordering process to you as though you’ve never been to the burger bar named after Some Chaps Numbering Less Than Six and Greater Than Four before.

6. Bear this in mind when you realise later on she still got your order wrong.

7. Pay. Note that you are order number 23. Sweep your gaze again around the room to clock how many tables are emptying up soon and how many people are ahead of you. Pretend to be casual about it all while you work out that if she leaves now then they’ll get that table which means that he might sit there and maybe they’ll take out.

8. Note particularly that large group of cackling selfie-taking girls taking up that whole middle area that’s either a shared table or a perfectly legit place for several alone-diners to eat separately without having to ask if anyone’s sitting here.

9. Pop your earphones back in and press play.

10. Take your big paper cup up to the fancy drinks machine and browse. Add exactly enough ice to stop the drink fizzing up too much but not enough that it will make the drink cold.

11. Press pour now to enjoy a big cup of cherry Dr Pepper.

12. Isn’t Dr Pepper cherry flavoured anyway? Wonder if you’ve been tricked.

13. Wait. Keep checking the tables. Keep waiting.

14. When order 20 is called look around again and panic that nothing has changed. Start wondering if maybe you should take your food out and go find a park or something.

15. Know that there’s no park within a sufficiently short distance that won’t make you feel awkward carrying around a bag of hot food.

16. File taking away as plan B and asking someone if you can share their table as a reasonable plan A. Start working out who you’ll aim for. The balding man watching something on his iPad seems a safe bet.

17. Berate yourself for thinking any of them won’t just nod indifferently and barely acknowledge you anyway.

18. Take order 23. Show the receipt thingy to the guy. Half-fold it and put it in your pocket so you can claim it back when you get home. Wonder what the expense processing people will think when they see that you were staying in the hotel with the great Belgian restaurant in it but you still went to eat a burger.

19. Berate yourself for thinking the expense processing people will spend more than half a second looking at the receipt.

20. Gird yourself and stride towards the table. Note with surprise and relief that the man and his iPad have gone and the table has already been cleared by some assiduous employee. Leap on it.

21. Start to eat. Keep your earphones jammed in in case someone sits next to you so you can both pretend the other doesn’t exist

22. While eating, always keep one hand clean so you can adjust the volume of your ill-curated iPod as it skims between bouncy electro dance-pop and trad-folk. Skip the occasional unruly track.

23. Decide that the cajun fries are good but also that the potatoes are bloody Maris Piper again. Wonder why anyone is buying this lie that they make a good chip. Regard the soggy stragglers at the bottom of the bag with a sort of sorrowful disdain. Keep up a running commentary in your head like a game show host reminding you that if it all gets too hot you’ve still got 12 sips of drink left.

24. Bite into your burger and realise at once that she forgot the lettuce. Obviously don’t even entertain the possibility of complaining.

25. Have a bit more burger and realise she put mustard in there instead. Check the order thingy on your receipt. It says mayo,tomato, grilled onion, mushrooms, BBQ and mustard, just like it shouldn’t.

26. Realise you quite like this burger. Glance again at the receipt thing and thank… thank Marua in your head for this new good burger combo she gave you.

27. Note that the place is still busy but nobody has yet come to sit at your table.

28. Smile when your iPod shuffles to a dancy indie pop number you first heard in a dancy indie pop club somewhere in the region of fifteen years ago. Think wistfully about how many more dancy indie pop clubs you could have gone to if you hadn’t been the sort of person who goes for a cheap burger instead of a nice Belgian meal just because you’re alone.

29. Realise that you’ll never be as cool as you were in those moments, even if you are much better dressed now and with a much less stupid haircut.

30. Rue the stupid haircut.

31. Miss hanging out with the people you used to go to dancy indie pop clubs with.

32. Spend a mealtime flicking between missing the person you were and reminding yourself that actually you still like the person you’ve become and it’s probably ok and healthy to be doing both.

33. Don’t take too much comfort from that.

34. Get up to leave. Note that a cool looking young guy just asked the girl at the table next to you if he could sit there and she gave him an indifferent nod and a brief smile.

35. Tell yourself something along the lines of “that wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

36. Still hate yourself for not being able to go to the nice Belgian place alone.

37. Note that as the gaggle of teenage girls continues to be almost leaving their excited yammering fills the room and you’ve no idea what’s come on your iPod next.

38. Reach for the door.

39. As the door opens, realise that what you couldn’t hear playing was Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen. Step out into the cooling summer air and go back to your hotel and your bath.

40. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

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